Over last weekend, Anita Perry–the wife of Texas governor Rick Perry–told a reporter that abortion was a “woman’s right, just like it’s a man’s right if he wants to have some kind of procedure. But I don’t agree with it and it’s not my view.” About women that chose to have abortions, Mrs. Perry also said that “If they want to do that, that is their decision; they have to live with that decision.”
Whether deliberately or not, Mrs. Perry’s comments contained a strong echo of Pope Francis’s recent statements about homosexuality, an acknowledgement that it’s not right for one person to tell another what personal decisions they should make in their lives. And while she has declined to make any additional public statements following last weekend’s remarks, her husband has: “From time to time we’ll stick the wrong word in the wrong place, and you pounce upon it,” Governor Perry told reporters earlier this week. Of course, just what “wrong word” went in what “wrong place” remains unclear; and exactly why reporters shouldn’t take note when the partner of a staunchly anti-choice politician indicates that she might have other thoughts about abortion is also unclear.
Indeed, it is doubtful that Anita Perry’s comments would have received even half of this coverage if her husband had not made eradicating reproductive rights in Texas an apparent goal of his years in office. Rick Perry has enacted some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, banning abortion after 20 weeks; requiring all abortions to be performed in surgical centers; mandating that doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals; and excluding Planned Parenthood from funding through the state’s Women’s Health Program, among other restrictions. The surgical center and admitting privilege requirements will be challenging, if not downright impossible, for many of the state’s 42 abortion clinics to meet, and the day before Mrs. Perry made her comments, state clinics and national reproductive rights groups filed suit to block both the admitting privileges law and a measure that requires doctors to use an outdated regime for performing medication abortions.
I’m usually a fan of anything that makes Rick Perry squirm, to say nothing of any high-profile reminders that what personal decision one person makes is not for another to judge. But all this purported surprise that Anita Perry disagrees with her husband about reproductive rights carries with it a bit of … well, perhaps not sexism, but something pretty darn close. After all, why should it be a shock that a wife might disagree with the decisions and opinions of her husband? I can rattle off a half dozen areas where my own husband and I have different opinions, and that’s just from this week. To express surprise that a wife doesn’t automatically think the same as her husband is both patronizing and patriarchal, and belies a way of thinking more appropriate to the Mad Men era than the 21st century.
Anita Perry is far from the first high-profile political wife–let alone high-profile Texas political wife–to disagree with her husband on this particular topic. Barbara and Laura Bush are just two other Republican spouses that occasionally disagreed with their husbands’ positions on abortion and reproductive rights. And while I’m sure such differences of opinion may have led to some spirited dinner table conversations, it doesn’t appear that their beliefs on reproductive rights had much influence on their husbands’ decisions on the same issue.
And perhaps that’s how it should be. After all, to assume that both halves of a couple think the same on every issue is naÃ¯ve, not to mention unrealistic. We’re all shaped by experiences throughout our lives, from our earliest childhoods on up, and a fair number of those happen well before we meet the person–or people–we marry. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine that Anita Perry was shaped by different experiences, people, and circumstances than her husband, and that any one of those could have given her a different, more common-sense approach to the issues of abortion and reproductive rights than Governor Perry demonstrates.
Of course, just as our personal experiences shape us as individuals, they also shape how we interact with the people around us. And so it’s tempting to hope that Mrs. Perry is able to have a more moderating effect on her husband during his last months in office. But to be honest, the damage may already be done to the thousands of women and families in Texas that need accessible, high-quality reproductive health care. Perhaps the most meaningful legacy of Anita Perry’s comments lie in her words themselves: a recognition that abortion is truly “a woman’s right.”